The simplification and mass-production of a philosophy make it ridiculous.
I’m making a failed attempt at “mindful dishwashing,” the subject of a how-to article an acquaintance recently shared on Facebook.
According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully “in” the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg.
Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them.
Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present.
This is a BAD idea when a person is suffering from constant pain and the present moment is torture.
The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments.
Corporate America offers its employees mindfulness training to “streamline their productivity,” and the United States military offers it to the Marine Corps.
If corporate America is enthusiastic about such training, that means they’ve found a way to make a profit from it, either by using to make their employees more productive or selling the idea.
Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on “mindfulness products.” “Living in the Moment” has monetized its folksy charm into a multibillion-dollar spiritual industrial complex.
So does the moment really deserve its many accolades? It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones.
On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it.
Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok, or in Don Draper’s bed
What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance
Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.
But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class.
The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
This is exactly how pain is viewed these days: if you’re suffering from pain, you have only your own catastrophizing to blame.
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.” Now mindfulness has taken its place as the focus of our appetite for inner self-improvement.
The same has happened in pain management: actual pain has been rebranded as “catastrophizing”.
now our preferred solution to life’s complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful.
This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving.
So, your suffering is not coming from chronic pain caused by botched epidurals and spine surgeries, genetic disease, ore car accidents, but rather from your “bad thoughts” about it.
The problem is you.
The easiest way to solve a problem is to redefine it to be someone else’s fault, so a person’s pain is no longer a medical problem but rather a person’s inner thought problem.
It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness
In reality, despite many grand claims, the scientific evidence in favor of the Moment’s being the key to contentment is surprisingly weak
So perhaps, rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere.